Arts & Culture

Behind the photography of Fatema Al Fardan

We explore and discuss the Emirati artist's newest photography series.

By Sekka Team

Emerging Emirati photographer and artist Fatema Al Fardan. Image: Courtesy of Fatema Al Fardan.

22-year-old Emirati Fatema Al Fardan didn’t always think she would grow up to be an artist. In fact, because she went to a science-oriented high school, she never thought she would study anything but engineering, despite the fact that she was obsessed with documenting people events on campus through photography for the school’s newsletter. Flash-forward five years later, after studying at New York University Abu Dhabi, where a photography class made her realize that photography can be more than a hobby and led her to double-major in visual arts and economics. Fatema Al Fardan is amongst the UAE’s newest and most promising multidisciplinary emerging artists, who showcased her work in the Middle East Institute’s Art Gallery’s 2020 online art exhibition Art in Isolation: Creativity in the Time of Covid-19, and is currently showcasing her photography series, We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage, at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse 421 as part of the ongoing group exhibition, Mina Zayed:Reflections on Past Futures.

The exhibition, a result of a year-long mentorship program in partnership and collaboration with the Dubai based center for photography Gulf Photo Plus and Warehouse421, examines the state of “suspended existence” that Mina Zayed— Abu Dhabi’s port and the surrounding area that contains warehouses, a toy store, co-op, wedding hall, the Action Zone arcade, a fruits and vegetables market a fish market, a carpet market and an agricultural market— is in due to developmental changes to the area, which have already led to the abandonment and demolishment of certain spaces within the Mina. The changing area is meaningful to many of Abu Dhabi’s residents and citizens, including Fatema Al Fardan, and is a space where many memories live. In the exhibition that features the work of 11 artists, Fatema participates with a photography series, that captures her and her family members in various locations at Mina Zayed. Fatema, who comes from a diverse cultural background, uses Mina Zayed as a site for discussions and narrative erasures that come with globalization and gentrification.

We speak with the young artist about the reason she has chosen photography to express herself, the themes she explores in her art, her most recent photography series and her future plans. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fatema Al Fardan’s photography series, We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage, as exhibited in Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Image: Courtesy of Warehouse421 and Fatema Al Fardan.

Why photography as a medium for your artistic expression?

Fatema Al Fardan: It was the one I was exposed to on a constant basis since childhood. Also, it never fails to surprise me. It is so broad, there are so many different types of photography: conceptual, staged, documentary, to name a few. So there is always something fascinating me.

Are there any other artistic mediums you’ve explored or would like to, other than photography? Why?

Fatema Al Fardan: In addition to photography, I have explored video art and poetry. Graphic design is one art form that doesn’t come naturally to me. I am working towards a self-instructed graphic design specialization and I would love for it to come naturally and easily. I’m in awe of graphic designers who produce original consistent stylized work. Different mediums allow me to express my ideas with quirkiness that comes with specificity. So I’m always keen on learning a new medium that would aid my concept .

A Chasm Between Us from We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage by Fatema Al Fardan. Image: Courtesy of Warehouse421 and Fatema Al Fardan.

Tell us about your most recent photography series, We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage, which is showcasing at Mina Zayed: Reflections on Past Futures. What was the inspiration behind it? How long did it take you to complete?

Fatema Al Fardan: I developed my most recent series in the image-based mentorship program in collaboration with Warehouse421 and Gulf Photo Plus, through which I worked alongside 10 UAE based artists to develop a project around Mina Zayed. The culmination is an exhibition titled, Mina Zayed: Reflections on Past Futures. It was a one-year artist development program, from ideation to conception.

I applied to challenge myself to develop a self-portrait series, which at the time of the application I was having trouble conceptualizing and executing. I applied to it when I was developing my senior capstone project, through which I was dissecting the basic parts of my identity (gender, language, religion, ancestry and language). This series feels like one step further into this ongoing analysis and like an extension of my art practice as I continue to explore themes in the area of my interest like family and gender.

You have been described as an artist who is interested in complexifying Emirati narratives, and as one who examines her monolithic national identity through photography and questions social and cultural homogeneity attached to Emiratis. Can you expand on that?

Fatema Al Fardan: I adopted this term after reading Rana Al Mutawa’s paper titled “Monolithic Representations and Orientalist Credence in the UAE,” in which she explains that the idea of the Emirati is often dictated by institutionalized narratives that push one type of Emirati to the public sphere: a “pure” Arab, usually Bedouin. This narrative is simplistic, and it does not accurately represent the full diverse spectrum of local inhabitants of the UAE and the wider Gulf.

Mn Ana? from We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage by Fatema Al Fardan. Image: Courtesy of Warehouse421 and Fatema Al Fardan.
A Complete Guide to a Partial Education from We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage by Fatema Al Fardan. Image: Courtesy of Warehouse421 and Fatema Al Fardan.

Tell us about the reasons behind this exploration and your interest in it.

Fatema Al Fardan: Showing my own narrative gives me agency to push against pervasive ideas circulated in both local and global communities. Representation is very important in creating cultural consciousness, and I do not often see myself represented in art or in the mainstream. I put myself in the public sphere when I show work that complicates what it means to be Emirati, and this creates awareness.

The idea of a “pure” Emirati prevailed in the predominately Emirati private school I attended in Abu Dhabi. Both Emiratis and Arabs in my school often enquired about my ancestry and ethnicity. This was done because everyone was implicitly categorized into a group of “most” Emirati to “least” Emirati and even “fake” Emirati. This categorization then determined an individual’s social capital. This also encouraged ethnic supremacy, which sometimes led to discriminatory comments. Telling a personal narrative challenges the idea of the institutionalized homogenous Emirati, and thus allows for an inclusive understanding of who an Emirati is. This is crucial in settings like schools where students grow in maturity and begin to understand various systems governing the world.

In New York University Abu Dhabi I was often visibly Emirati. In an international context, I was assumed to be both a hyper-privileged and oppressed Muslim. The meaning of what it meant to be an Emirati completely shifted in my transition from school to university, where in school my Emirati-ness was questioned, and the nuances of my identity was actively investigated by peers and staff, in university I simply became the Emirati, where the institutionalized identity was assumed. Here, telling a personal narrative challenges the stereotypical understanding of who an Emirati is.

How would you describe your identity? How would you define yourself?

Fatema Al Farden: I wrote a poem exploring this; I’ll share a part of it to answer this question.

Tell us how you complexify these narratives and examine national identity through your series ?

Fatema Al Fardan: I complexify what it means to be Emirati by telling personal stories derived from my lived experiences. Some of these stories include feelings of ostracization in school, navigating private-public life and transitioning from childhood to womanhood. They are personal stories, but in their authenticity they become universal.

Why did you choose Mina Zayed to complicate this narrative?

Fatema Al Fardan: In an essay I wrote titled “Process: A Mentee’s Experience in Warehouse421 x Gulf Photo Plus Artistic Development Program” published in Postscript Magazine as part of April’s Gulf issue I answer this question by saying: “Mina Zayed is an important place to complicate this narrative because it has already become a discursive site for discussions and manifestations of narrative erasure, which come with globalization and gentrification.”

You Can’t Sit With Us from We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage by Fatema Al Fardan. Image: Courtesy of Warehouse421 and Fatema Al Fardan.

What are some of your favorite parts of your childhood? How does the demolition of parts of Mina Zayed affect that?

Fatema Al Fardan: In my childhood, Mina Zayed was both fun and utilitarian. I remember it being a bustling area. We would go to buy groceries and play in Action Zone. I think that the next generation won’t experience Mina Zayed the way I did or the way my parents did and I think about what will happen to our collective narratives when this continues to happen.

What is the role of art in preserving the memory of spaces, in your opinion?

Fatema Al Fardan: It goes against erasure of narratives. Some spaces bring back memories and photographs stand against time, so once these spaces are gone art will be the only thing we have left. It also opens up the conversation for discussion to a wider group of people, sometimes in a more accessible way.

I Was Born to be a Companion from We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage by Fatema Al Fardan. Image: Courtesy of Warehouse421 and Fatema Al Fardan.
An Impression of a Conventional Family from We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage by Fatema Al Fardan. Image: Courtesy of Warehouse421 and Fatema Al Fardan.
Who Told Mom We’re Heading Out? from We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage by Fatema Al Fardan. Image: Courtesy of Warehouse421 and Fatema Al Fardan.

Tell us about why you chose to include your family members as subjects of your series.

Fatema Al Fardan: The stories I told involved my family members, so it felt only naturally to include them. This is the most question I got after the opening in different variations, and it is slightly surprising that visitors are taken aback. It makes me think, why is my involvement of my family regarded as a breakthrough?

What is your favorite piece from your series? Why?

Fatema Al Fardan: I don’t have a favorite, but I think An Impression of a Conventional Family was the most fun to make.

What would you like viewers to get out from your series?

Fatema Al Fardan: I’d like for the viewer to continue the conversations I started in my works. Some topics for example, education, domestic help, ostracization and public image.

What are some themes you’d like to explore in your art in the future?

Fatema Al Fardan: I want to continue unpacking the same themes currently present in my works like gender and cultural homogeneity.

Artists and photographers you look up to…

Fatema Al Fardan: Latoya Ruby Frazier, Mays Albaik and Laura Schneider.

What are your future plans?

Fatema Al Fardan: I recently started SEAF [the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship], so I’m very excited to develop a sustained art practice. Graduate school is also in my future plans.

To find out more about Fatema Al Fardan, visit her page on Instagram .

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

This article was updated on May 25, 2021 at 2:36 PM to correct Fatema Al Fardan’s age as being 22, not 23, and to correct the exhibition’s name, Mina Zayed: Reflections on Past Futures.